Phronesis: Practical Wisdom for Leaders with Scott Allen

Bill Eddy - Managing 'High Conflict' Personalities

September 27, 2023 Scott J. Allen Season 1 Episode 194
Phronesis: Practical Wisdom for Leaders with Scott Allen
Bill Eddy - Managing 'High Conflict' Personalities
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. developed the high conflict personality theory to explain the driving forces behind people who present the most challenging behaviors. He is an expert on managing disputes involving high-conflict situations and 5 high conflict personality types, including a subset of those with narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, histrionic, and paranoid personality disorders. He has trained over 200,000 professionals in 10 countries on understanding and managing high-conflict disputes, including lawyers, judges, mediators, managers, human resource professionals, businesspersons, healthcare administrators, college administrators, law enforcement, therapists, and others.

As an attorney, Bill was a Certified Family Law Specialist in California and the Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego. Before becoming an attorney in 1992, he was a Licensed Clinical Social worker with twelve years of experience providing therapy to children, adults, couples, and families in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics.

He serves on the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution faculty at the Pepperdine University School of Law. He is an Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle Law School in Australia. In 2021, Bill received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Professional Family Mediators.

Bill has a popular blog on the Psychology Today website with over 3.5 million views and is the author and co-author of twenty books on high-conflict personalities, including two award winners (see all books here):

A Quote From this Episode

  • "About 10% of people have these extreme behaviors, and they don't stop themselves and they are dysfunctional."

Resources Mentioned in This Episode

About The International Leadership Association (ILA)

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About The Boler College of Business at John Carroll University

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About  Scott J. Allen

My Approach to Hosting

  • The views of my guests do not constitute "truth." Nor do they reflect my personal views in some instances. However, they are views to consider, and I hope they help you clarify your perspective. Nothing can replace your reflection, research, and exploration of the topic.

Note: Voice-to-text transcriptions are about 90% accurate, and conversations-to-text do not always translate perfectly. I include it to provide you with the spirit of the conversation.

Scott Allen  0:00  

Okay, everybody, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for checking in wherever you are in the world. Today I have Bill Eddy. He is a licensed clinical social worker and he is an attorney. He's also the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute. He developed the high conflict personality theory to explain the driving forces behind people who present the most challenging behaviors. He is an expert on managing disputes involving high conflict situations, and five high conflict personality types, including a subset of those with narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, histrionic, and paranoid personality disorders. He has trained over 200,000 professionals in 10 countries on understanding and managing high conflict disputes, including lawyers, judges, mediators, managers, human resources professionals, business persons, healthcare administrators, college administrators, homeowners association managers, ombudspersons, law enforcement therapists, and others. As an attorney, Bill was a certified family law specialist in California, and the senior family mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego. Prior to becoming an attorney in 1992, he was a licensed clinical social worker with 12 years experience providing therapy to children, adults, couples, and families in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics. He serves on the faculty of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine University School of Law, and is a Conjoint Associate professor with the University of Newcastle Law School in Australia. In 2021, Bill received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Academy of Professional Family mediators. He has a popular blog on Psychology Today, which has been viewed over three and a half million times. And he is the author and co-author of 20 books on high conflict personalities, including two award winners, we are going to put links to those in the show notes for guests. Bill, this is pretty incredible. What else do listeners need to know about you, sir, before we jump into our conversation? 


Bill Eddy  2:09  

Well, I love people, and I love analyzing and solving people problems. So, it's just kind of a fascination of mine. Ever since I think I was about 13, I started keeping track of which kids were getting together as a couple and which couples were getting ready to split up. I've been fascinated by relationships and people ever since.


Scott Allen  2:33  

That's wonderful. Well, I came across you because I was watching a YouTube series called ‘The Big Think.’ And, for listeners, I'm going to go ahead and put a link to that in the show notes so that you can access that. But it just really caught my attention. And, as soon as someone assumes a position of leadership, whether that's formal or informal, there's going to be change, there's going to be potentially disruption, there's going to be -- baked into that role -- differences in opinions, and then there's going to be conflict. And so, maybe, if you would, I would love for you to kind of take us through the high conflict personality theory, because, sometimes we're going to come across some individuals that are on the extreme of who we want to be working with. Is that a nice way to say it?


Bill Eddy  3:28  

That is, and it's important to be nice about it because people don't really realize what they're doing. But about 10% of people have these extreme behaviors, and they don't stop themselves, and they're dysfunctional. And people don't expect that. They kind of assume everybody's logical and reasonable. And if I just point out to you what you're doing wrong, you'll go, “Oh, I get it,” and behave better. There's the 10% that doesn't do that.


Scott Allen  4:02  

Okay. So, for listeners, we're talking about the 10%, somewhat on the margins here. But again, as a leader, you're going to come across all personalities. So, here's a few to have on your radar to be looking out for.


Bill Eddy  4:18  

Yeah. I can tell you the high conflict personality theory really came to me from becoming a lawyer after being a therapist. And, in the family law area, there's a lot of what they call high conflict cases, high conflict families, because they keep coming back to court, they keep being angry, they keep pointing fingers at each other, and all of that. Well, because of my background as a therapist, I thought, “Well, these people have traits of personality disorders.” So, what's a personality disorder? It's a mental health diagnosis for someone who basically has an enduring pattern of dysfunctional interpersonal behavior. So, it could be a wide range of things. They might be quite withdrawn or may look perhaps like they have schizophrenia, but they don't. That’s a schizotypal personality disorder. But the ones that are problematic, especially in organizations that the leaders need to know about, are the four Cluster B personality disorders, which are narcissistic, which is very popular today, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, also known as sociopath, and histrionic personality disorder. Now, in addition, there's paranoid personality disorder, which is a Cluster A personality disorder, but that may be the one, for example, the workplace researchers say that, of these five personalities, the paranoid personality is the most likely to sue the organization because they really distort how things are happening and all these personalities can't look at themselves. And that's a key thing to know. You're not going to give them insight about their own behavior because they 100% think it happens to them, that it's somebody else's fault, or life is just out to get them, but they can't connect the dots back to their own behavior. And that's what shocks people, but also makes it very difficult for them to change if they ever are going to change.


Scott Allen  6:40  

So, talk a little bit about each one of these and how they could show up. What would be some behavior patterns of individuals with these different… I think you had four B and one A cluster behaviors. Were they behaviors? Should I say behaviors?


Bill Eddy  6:57  

Well, there are a set of behaviors, that's what you'll see. So, let's start with narcissistic personality disorder because people today say, “Oh, he's a narcissist. My husband's a hard narcissist. My boss is a narcissist,” all that stuff. Half the world are narcissists, the other half are the ones that say that the other half is a narcissist. But people have to realize there's a continuum of how severe behavior is. So, somebody who's kind of self-centered, and you tell them what you did today, and their response is, “Well, I…” And they go off about what they do, they don't tune in to other people very well. That's not narcissistic personality disorder, that's someone who's more or less self-centered. But narcissistic personality disorder is an interpersonal dysfunction that because of their arrogance, their drive is to be seen as superior, they have to put people down. And so, they can be quite mean, people often refer, “This person's really mean to me,” well, that may be a narcissist because they're putting themselves up by putting other people down. They may publicly humiliate you. In the workplace, they may take credit for your work and blame you for their mistakes. And so, often, people that are under them, like if they're a middle manager, people under them go, “I can't believe this guy is still here. They haven't fired him yet.” And the people above that person think he's wonderful, “Oh, he tells us every week about the wonderful things he's accomplished, and he's so charming.” And charm, by the way, is a warning sign of these personalities. They all have a lot of charm, which covers up a lot of the bad behavior. So, a narcissistic personality disorder is not pleasant to be around, and generally, is not that good an employee or a manager, but they talk themselves up. And so, people in leadership positions need to keep their eyes open for, “Is this charm and talk or is this true?” And finding out, “Is there anything going on?” Regular feedback, especially about managers is a good thing, and regular feedback from employees is a good thing. And so, that's an example for narcissistic personality disorder. Borderline personality disorder is characterized by wide mood swings. So, they may be super friendly, and wonderful, charming. And then, in a minute, they're furious, they're in a rage, they may be screaming at you, “How could you do such a thing?” We don't see that as much in management positions, but you do see some of that in employment. And if they are in a management position, they may really intimidate people so much that other people don't know about it, they keep it hush-hush. And they can be so charming and you go, “Okay, I hope this will blow over soon, and then I can be happy again and the person will be friendly and everything's fine.” And they really do cycle back and forth. There's brain science about this too that there may be some differences for them. Antisocial personality disorder, also known as sociopath is perhaps the most troublesome and the most difficult to notice. These are people who lack a conscience. And there is a great little book, ‘Sociopath Next Door.’ Now, it talks about how people really don't recognize this. Of course, I have books that I mentioned them in too, but that one focuses purely on that personality. And they are con artists, the Bernie Madoff types. And what's fascinating is, I keep pointing out to people, this is their personality and they are invested in creating a fantasy about themselves, and covering up, and really protecting any negative image of themselves. And because this is their personality, often the people around them don't know this, and even their own families often don't know this. So, like Bernie Madoff’s wife said, “I didn't realize what he was doing.” And I'm one of the few people that says, “I think that's true.” And one of his sons committed suicide because he didn't realize what was happening, he was devastated by it. So, the biggest thing to know about antisocial is you will be conned. We were conned once, we had an intern who turned out not to be who he said he was. But this is like a year after he was gone, and we're going to put his name as a co-author on a book because he did some research for us, and I lost track of him. So, we Googled him and found out that he'd been sentenced to four years in federal prison for identity theft. And we're in this business and we couldn't spot that. So everybody, I believe, will be conned by an antisocial sociopath at some point. And hopefully, they won't do too much damage. It didn't hurt us, it just caught us by surprise. But people need to be aware there are people like that out there. And lastly, well, of these four is histrionic personality disorder, which is just very dramatic, extreme, just has to be the center of attention. By itself, not really that harmful, but odd. But combined with a narcissist, or combined with a borderline personality disorder can really escalate things and cause a lot of drama. And there's a lot of workplace divisions that get totally distracted by these folks because they don't understand and they don't set limits. Because you really have to set limits because these folks don't stop themselves. Now, let me quickly add paranoid, the one most likely to sue their employer of these five. Don't get scared by that, of course. I don't make you paranoid. But they really project onto other people the difficulties they have in their career. And they may say that their manager is ruining their career and blocking them from advancement without being able to see it's their own behavior that's blocking their advancement. So there's that. But with all of these, it's like people really need to be aware there are people like this that they aren't what they seem to be on the surface, they create a lot of conflict, they create a lot of uproars because people can't figure them out and apply ordinary tools like insight. “Well, let me just point out what you're doing wrong,” and they go into a rage, and you go, “Whoa, I'm never going to do that again.” And you spend the next six months walking on eggshells, and then you leave. And a lot of companies and organizations lose good people because of high conflict personalities, these five, that don't get addressed and don't get managed well.


Scott Allen  14:47  

Thank you so much for defining those. What else do you want listeners to know about these personalities?


Bill Eddy  14:55  

If they listen to enough of The Big Think interviews, they'll probably come upon the CAR’s method, which is what we've developed to kind of make it easy to remember four key skills to use. So, the first is connect. It helps to try to connect with a high-conflict person even when they're angry with you because they really don't have control over that. And yet, because of their problems or interpersonal problems, what you do can influence what they do. So, we connect with what we call ‘EAR statements,’ that show empathy, attention, and respect. And so, if you have someone that's angry with you, like, say, it's your boss, and he's narcissistic, but it doesn't matter, you only have to figure out which of these it is. EAR statements help with all of them. But with narcissists, they want to know you respect them, so they're angry at you, “How dare you question my authority,” or something. And so you say something like, “Wow, I really respect your role, and I really want to be helpful here, and I really want to make our department look good and make you look good. So, it would help me if you could tell me your priorities here because you've given me six projects, and I only have time for two.” So, you connect by saying, “I respect,” something. Now, it has to be honest. You might say, “Hey, I really respected the job you did with the presentation last week,” or, “I really respect your commitment to our division,” things like that. So, with a narcissist, you sprinkle the word respect in your conversations, they often like to hear that. Empathy. People with borderline or histrionic personalities really want empathy, they just don't know how to get it. And so, some ways to empathize is to see the person as an equal, is to say, “I can see your disappointment, I can hear your frustration, I can understand that this is what you had hoped for.” So by saying, “I can,” it validates that they're having a feeling that's a human feeling that you can understand. It doesn't mean you're saying it fits here, but I can understand that you're having this feeling. Don't get in an argument with these… You lose arguments with these folks, instead connect with them, like this. Now, don't overdo empathy like with a narcissist, or an antisocial personality, because they'll manipulate you. “Well, if you really cared, you would like for me on this form.” Things like that. So, a little bit of this. So that's connecting. Then A is for analyzing in the CAR’s method. Analyze options, present some choices, that gets them thinking and it makes the focus now on what to do now, rather than what has happened in the past which you can't successfully argue about. So, it's always present and future focus. Then respond to any misinformation. These high-conflict personalities often distort things, they have all-or-nothing thinking, they jump to conclusions, they have emotional reasoning, “I feel it's true so it must be true. You're stabbing me in the back.” Whether it’s not true at all, but it's just a feeling they got, things like that. And so, clear up anything like that. But don't clear it up by saying you're wrong, you just say, “Here's some information you may not have.” So, “You're upset that I was making noise in my office yesterday, and you may not be aware that I was out of town yesterday so that wouldn't have been me.” So just, matter of fact, give the information. Don't say, “You're wrong, buddy.” Just say, “You may not be aware,” and then, give the accurate information. And we have a method for writing called Biff that we created to respond to misinformation and hostility. And lastly, the ‘S’ is setting limits. So, connecting, analyzing, responding, setting limits. And the reason that people need to set limits with these high-conflict personalities is they don't stop themselves. And so, they're going to push your boundaries. They're going to do things that other people don't do. They may do things 90% of people don't ever do. And so, setting a boundary would be something like, “If you do this, I can't do that for you.” “If you do that, then we're going to have to have a meeting about you.” Things like that. So, that's the CARS method. That's a nutshell, and the idea is to keep it simple because, when you're under pressure, it's hard to remember seven or eight things. So, if you can just remember these four things, it gives you a chance.


Scott Allen  20:12  

Well, Bill, what are some -- and I know you've mentioned some of them, it might not even be that you would notice this, and then, all of a sudden, link it to one of those five. But are there some telltale behaviors? You mentioned a few moments ago, all-or-nothing thinking, are there some other telltale behaviors that at least leaders should have their radar go up? That, huh, okay, here's six or seven things that, okay, these are indicators that you should actually start paying close attention to start noticing, right?


Bill Eddy  20:48  

Yeah. I suggest four things, really, this is how we identify what we call high conflict personalities, which is all five of these, but they're not necessarily disorders. So, some people may just have some traits but they’re a little more workable. But the biggest thing that drives high conflict disputes is they are 100% blame 0% responsibility. So, if they're saying, “It's all your fault,” that's often a warning sign that they see 100%. If they say, “I think it's more your fault than mine. I can see my part in the problem, but I think your part is bigger,” that’s not a high conflict person. High conflict person, “It is all your fault. And my part is zero, and it's not up to me to solve this, it's up to you to solve this. So, get to work, Bill.”




Bill Eddy  21:46   

And a good way, like for managers and leaders, to deal with people who complain a lot, come and say, “You know what they did?” “You know what they did?” “She did this.” “He did that,” is to ask them, “Then, what do you propose?” Because whenever you bring me a problem, you need to bring me, at least, one, maybe two solutions.” And that makes people more responsible, and that will also help you become aware of who's a high conflict person because they have a hard time doing that.


Scott Allen  22:16  

Okay. They have a hard time…


Bill Eddy  22:19  

Yeah. Like, “Why should I bring a solution? It's all your fault. You figure it out, Bill.” So, that's all blame. Blame’s a big one, usually 100%. All-or-nothing thinking. That's a second big one. And they're thinking goes into solutions too, “I think you should fire Mary.” That's the problem here. Mary keeps complaining about me, and I'm not doing anything wrong. So, you should fire Mary, and then everything will be wonderful.” That's a warning sign. Then, unmanaged emotions. Now, that's not always true, you have people that are very calm, reasonable looking, who may be stealing from the organization and looking very innocent. Maybe undermining other people, breaking other people's equipment, making things disappear, all of that. But there are many people that do show that unmanaged emotion, whether they just start yelling, or they throw something, they storm out of a room. And, unfortunately, that's not that unusual in today's society on TV shows. Most sitcoms, at some point in each show, somebody storms out of a room, and some people have adopted that as a way of living. And it's not a good thing in the workplace. And most people don't do that,  but there may be somebody that does that. And then, the fourth is they do extreme behaviors that 90% of people would never do. We used to say you have to see people over time if they have a pattern of extreme behavior, but there's some things that tell you, “No, that's something 90% of people would never do,” like make a bold-faced lie and spread it around on the internet, or punch a hole in the wall, or park in the disabled parking space all the time when they're not disabled. I might mention Steve Jobs used to do that. So, he had some of these traits, they say, but he was managed very well, so he succeeded in life. But anyway, so look for blaming, 100% blame, all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors, and you start going, “Hmm, this seems to kind of fit so and so. I got to kind of keep my eye out here.”


Scott Allen  24:48  

Well, you had just mentioned Steve Jobs. And yes, if you read the Isaacson biography…


Bill Eddy  24:54  

Which I did. Thousand pages.


Scott Allen  24:57  

There were some of these there for sure. At least the stories go that some of these things that you're… And probably some of those behaviors contributed to him being let go the first time from Apple. I shouldn't say the first time, from being let go from Apple. Of course, then he started Next and he came back probably a little more mature and in control. But yes, I think, if Isaacson's correct, some of those behaviors for sure existed.


Bill Eddy  25:29  

Yeah. I think one thing, my analysis, because I really looked at him, we wrote a book called ‘It's All Your Fault at Work!.’ And we included a little mini-analysis of Steve Jobs. And my belief is that he didn't have a personality disorder, but that he had traits of a personality disorder. And what that means is he was workable, and on his own, my guess is he would not have succeeded. But he had an excellent management team that, the second time around, figured out how to manage him, and he did actually learn. So, he learned from being fired, that was the consequence. I don't know that 90% of the presidents of companies get fired for cause. So, he had some extreme behavior. But what I think his personality traits helped him with was focusing because high conflict people often can really have a narrow focus, and be really committed to something that's often not good, but, if it is good, sometimes it's really brilliant. And what happened is, the people around him learned how to give him what I call EAR statements. And one of the best people at giving Steve Jobs respectful statements and seeing him with empathy was Tim Cook. Guess who he appointed as his successor? Tim Cook. Tim Cook said, we quoted it in our book from the Isaacson book, is he said, “I don't get rattled. I don't take it personally. That's just the way Steve communicates, so I didn't take it personally.” And he said something, I think he said, “I respect that. I could have empathy for him and see what it was we needed to do. I could see past the insult, I just ignored all of that.” So, the EAR statements they did. Analyzing options, from time to time, Steve Jobs wanted to fire a whole division because things weren't going the way he wanted. And there's an example in the Isaacson book of one of this management team saying, “Hey, Steve, let's go for a walk. Let’s just take a walk,” because Steve liked to go on walks and did a lot of work on his walks with people. And they calmed him down and said, “You've got some choices here. If you fire the division, then such and such will happen. But if you just help motivate the people, let them continue on the path, I think you're going to see some results.” So, Steve calms down, he comes back, says, “Okay, I need you to do this, this, and this,” and doesn't fire the division. So, giving him choices made him think. Analyzing options. And responding to misinformation. They talked about Steve Jobs having a distortion field that he would just create something out of nothing, and facts, and stuff that didn't exist. And so, they would kind of update him on the realities, say, “Steve, you may not be aware, but here's some information.” And they learned to set limits with him, but to do it gently. And so, there was one woman, I don't remember her name, but in the management team, worked with him for years and years. He would have a blow-up and she’d say, “Steve, come into my office,” and he’d come into her office. He says, “I know, I know, I shouldn’t have yelled at people. I shouldn't have done this and that,” and she would say, “That's right. And Steve, you got to watch out for that because that's going to hurt you in the long run.” And he would go, “I know, I know.” So we had some insight, but he couldn't sustain it more than a couple of weeks before he'd start yelling at people again. But the way they managed him helped get the best out of him while keeping the worst kind of under there some perhaps. So, that's how you can do this. And we see people, leaders that need this kind of help because there are our high conflict leaders, but some of them are brilliant and have something to offer. Others go off the rails and really need to be moved out of the organization. So, good things to know.


Scott Allen  30:16  

Well, Bill, as we begin to wind down our time together, is there anything else that you want listeners to know before we conclude?


Bill Eddy  30:25  

I think, when you're in a high conflict situation, it can be very stressful. Don't avoid it, connect with other people, get help. Just like harassment and workplace bullying, find someone in the organization you can talk to. And if you see somebody else getting treated badly, is figure out what you can do. Sometimes, just saying, “Hey, that's enough, Joe,” may be all you need to do. You don't have to do a big confrontation and a speech. Somebody's hassling somebody else, “Hey, Joe, that's enough, give her a break.” And then, go on with what you're doing. That kind of thing, enough people do that, people go, “Oops, maybe I'm out of line.” And have empathy for high conflict people because they really don't know what they're doing. This stuff starts in childhood, and you don't have control over your childhood. But people have to have consequences too, so have confidence in setting limits when you need to. And we've got several books on this, I guess that’d be the last thing I'd say if people want more information.


Scott Allen  31:33  

Well, I will put links to those in the show notes for sure. But I like what you just said; do we have empathy for these individuals, and do we have boundaries? Right? 


Bill Eddy  31:44



Scott Allen  31:45

I think there's a space there that is a really good way of framing this up and thinking about it. When I close out our discussion, I often ask guests what they've been listening to, or streaming, or reading. What's something that's caught your attention in recent times that maybe listeners would be interested in? It could have something to do with what we've just discussed, it could have nothing to do with what we just discussed, but what's caught your eye?


Bill Eddy  32:11  

I always read about five books at a time, and I try to see what I'm reading.


Scott Allen  32:18  

You're like Bill Gates with his bag of books. Have you watched the documentary ‘Inside Bill's Head’? 


Bill Eddy  32:27



Scott Allen  32:28

I think it's on Netflix. Really interesting. But he walks around with a big bag of books because he's always reading multiple books at a time.


Bill Eddy  32:34  

Yeah. Lately, I've been into the sociopaths. Like I'm watching the series ‘The Staircase,’ murder mystery. Did he do it or didn't he do it, I don't know yet. I like reading kind of a wide range of things. I kind of have a book in family area, book in the workplace area, a book in current events. But, most recently, I've been really focused on how people get conned, con artists, and reading about con artists like ‘The Sociopath Next Door,’ things like that.


Scott Allen  33:13  

So interesting. But I enjoy that you've got these different categories that you like to go to, and explore, and learn. Right? 


Bill Eddy  33:23



Scott Allen  33:24

Each one of us are works in progress, and you've helped us think through how to navigate some folks that, hopefully, we don't have to navigate all that often. But, like you said, when we do, we display empathy, and boundaries, and seek out the guidance of others to help navigate some of these difficult situations. Right?


Bill Eddy  33:46  

Exactly. Yep. And, by the way, we do consultations. So I got workplace, legal issues, etc. So, we're not legal advice, it’s consultations about high conflict patterns and general approaches to take. So, we help people develop strategies.


Scott Allen  34:05  

Well, I will put that in the show notes as well of how to get in touch with you. Bill, Thank you so much for your good work. Thank you for your time today, sir. And I look forward to a future conversation.


Bill Eddy  34:17  

Well, thank you so much, Scott. I've really enjoyed your questions and getting to chat with you. 


Scott Allen  34:21

Okay. Be well.



[End Of Audio]




Understanding High Conflict Personality Types
Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Personalities
Managing High-Conflict Leaders and Boundaries
Expressing Gratitude and Recommending a Resource